[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Hunter S. Thompson) Gonzo Nights
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New York Times Book Review, 5.4.17
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By RICH COHEN
Published: April 17, 2005
Hunter S. Thompson Reads From 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas'
The author reads from a favorite passage: "We had all the momentum; we
were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave." Recorded during
Rich Cohen's interview with Hunter S. Thompson in October 2004.
EXCERPTS THE INTERVIEW
On the Early Years
Growing up in Louisville, Ky.; odd jobs in San Francisco.
On the Meaning of Gonzo
The etymology of the word and what it means in practice.
The American dream; the Reagan and Bush years; the author's own
attempt at running for office.
Featured Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Last fall, I traveled to Woody Creek, Colo., to talk to Hunter S.
Thompson for what turned out to be one of his final interviews. For
years, Thompson had been trapped in the persona he created in his
30's, forever forced to play Hunter S. Thompson. More than drugs, this
was the monkey on his back: he was frozen in the role of the insider's
outsider, on call for every would-be rebel who wanted to party with
the madman. At the end, he was writing a column for ESPN.com and the
occasional article, but mostly he was just being Hunter S. Thompson, a
show that began each night in his house outside Aspen at around 5 with
the first stirrings of bedsheets. A groan. A string of expletives. An
assistant who hurries into the kitchen like an emergency room nurse.
''He's awake! He's awake!''
On my first night, the TV was turned to ''Monday Night Football,'' a
tall glass was filled with ice cubes and Chivas Regal, and a path was
cleared to his chair at the kitchen counter -- the same chair where, a
few months later, on Feb. 20, he would kill himself with a pistol
shot, bringing to a climax his long relationship with guns. Thompson
was among that group of American writers who knew how to be young but
never figured out how to grow old: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jack
Kerouac and Eugene O'Neill, who died in a Boston hotel, thousands of
dollars in debt. (''Born in a hotel room and, goddamn it, died in a
hotel room,'' he said.)
Appearing in the doorway, Thompson looked less like the pictures on
the jackets of his books than like a crazy uncle who has gotten into
the vanilla extract. There was something beautiful and almost Asian
about his features: when he was young, he was as hard and geometric as
sculpture. But at the end his face collapsed and his shoulders slumped
and his body was falling in all around him. He was unwinding like
yarn. He was tall and skinny, mouth frozen into a sneer.
''Clear a path,'' he shouted. He stumbled across the kitchen and fell
into the chair at the counter. He nodded to the man across the room,
his friend, the local sheriff, who had shown me the way to the house.
He reached out his right hand and the drink was there, just there, ice
clinking. Thompson opened the drawer to his left. It was filled with
narcotics. As he looked inside, the sheriff said, ''I'll go into the
other room while you do your drugs, Hunter.''
He sank a straw into a plastic container and took some cocaine onto
his tongue. He returned to the drawer constantly in the course of the
night, getting cocaine, pills, marijuana, which he smoked in a pipe --
the smoke was soft and tangy and blue -- chased by Chivas, white wine,
Chartreuse, tequila and Glenfiddich. The effect was gradual but soon
his features softened and the scowl melted and his movements became
fluid and graceful. By midnight, the man who had emerged a bleary-eyed
ruin hours before was on his feet and swearing and waving a shotgun
and another show had opened in the long run of Hunter S. Thompson.
Beginning in the early 1970's, when Thompson wrote ''Fear and
Loathing in Las Vegas'' and ''Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign
Trail '72,'' which both grew out of articles for Rolling Stone, he
created an image that became an American icon, like the gunslinger or
the big-city gangster -- the bald, paranoid, drug-frenzied journalist,
a cigarette holder dangling from the corner of his mouth, doing battle
with the straight world. He called it gonzo, a style of journalism in
which the reporter, by his antics, becomes the story. (''It's a
Portuguese word,'' Thompson told me. ''It means weird, off the wall,
Hell's Angels would say. Out there. Gonzo, learning to fly as you're
falling.'') At its best, gonzo was exhilarating, and in many of
Thompson's stories you glimpse the life the writer made for himself
outside the law. The freedom and gun-toting and drug-taking of it were
contagious: more than a body of work, he created a code, a way of
responding to a nation of rules.
In 1967, Thompson moved to Woody Creek, just as his career was taking
off. Before that, he lived in San Francisco, Puerto Rico, New York and
Louisville, Ky., where he was raised in the years following World War
II. His family was respectable but not especially well-to-do; his
father, Jack R. Thompson, was an insurance agent. The young Hunter ran
with a crowd above his station, debutantes and Gatsby boys riding in
open cars and wearing white ducks. You can see this in pictures of him
taken at the time, fresh-faced and broad, lost in a sea of 1950's
faces, looking more reckless and less comfortable than the others --
close enough to see the good life but not wealthy enough to live it.
When Thompson was 17, he went on a bender with friends and was
arrested on various charges, including under-age drinking. His friends
got off, but Thompson, without money or connections, took the hit. The
judge gave him a choice: reform school or the military. In 1956, he
enlisted in the Air Force and was shipped to Eglin Air Force Base in
Florida. Even at the end of his life, he spoke of this with real
anger. ''I was chased out of Louisville,'' he told me. Thompson was
discharged from the service in 1957, honorably, to the surprise of
some (''In summary, this Airman, although talented, will not be guided
by policy or personal advice and guidance. . . . He has little
consideration for military bearing or dress and seems to dislike the
service,'' as one personnel report said).
He wound up in New York, in an apartment near Columbia University,
then in a house downtown, on Perry Street, where he wrote novels he
could not sell and stories he could not publish. In the end, he took
newspaper and magazine assignments, pouring the energy and ideas of
the thwarted novelist into journalism. His first big success came with
an article he wrote for The Nation that became the book ''Hell's
Angels'' (1967). Its language and structure were conventional --
Hunter Thompson was not yet Hunter Thompson -- but the reporting was
dangerous. To write it, he had immersed himself in a world that
terrified most people. In the epilogue, he is stomped by members of
the motorcycle gang and our last image is the writer swerving down the
highway, escaping his own story -- ''spitting blood on the dashboard .
. . until my one good eye finally came into focus.''
His breakthrough into gonzo came in 1970, when the magazine Scanlan's
Monthly assigned him to cover the Kentucky Derby. While reporting the
article in Louisville, Thompson met Ralph Steadman, a British artist
who had been hired to illustrate it. From that moment on, Steadman was
Thompson's sidekick and muse, the fresh eyes through which Thompson
could see his own country. Steadman's drawings were stark and crazed
and captured Thompson's sensibility, his notion that below the plastic
American surface lurked something chaotic and violent. The drawings
are the plastic torn away and the people seen as monsters.
But on this first assignment, when Thompson sat down to write, nothing
came. He had been so wasted at the Derby: what could he remember? He
had his reporter's notebook, though, each page filled with a few sharp
sentences. In the end, he simply tore some pages out and sent them
over. He was giving up on the idea of creating a traditional
narrative. Maybe he was giving up on the idea of writing for
magazines. But the editors loved what he gave them and asked for more.
When it was set in type and published as ''The Kentucky Derby Is
Decadent and Depraved,'' the piece announced a new kind of journalism,
raw and unprocessed -- what you tell your friend about the party the
moment before you pass out.
I don't think it's an accident that Hunter Thompson became Hunter
Thompson by returning to the city from which he had been expelled
years before. In Louisville, he was able to plug into the old paranoia
and anger, into his tremendous instinct for vandalism -- anger he was
then able to transfer from the elite of Louisville to the elite of the
''Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,'' the work that made Thompson
famous, was published in two issues of Rolling Stone in November 1971.
It gave birth to the legend of Raoul Duke, Thompson's alter ego, who
then, as ''Uncle Duke,'' became a regular character in the comic strip
''Doonesbury''; Thompson would also be played in movies by Bill Murray
(''Where the Buffalo Roam'') and Johnny Depp (''Fear and Loathing in
Las Vegas''). In these films, it's less the work that's celebrated
than the persona. Hunter Thompson is the man who will swallow
anything. Give him a pill, he takes it, then asks, ''What was that?''
Drugs played a role for him similar to the role steroids can play in
the life of a slugger -- they jacked up his production and made him a
hall of fame player, but destroyed him in the end.
Which raises the question: Just what place did narcotics have in the
life and work of Hunter S. Thompson?
Well, he was an addict. No doubt about that. Addicted to cocaine and
pills and alcohol. Addicted to being addicted, forever chasing the
perfect state of chemical balance in which he could write, in which,
for a moment, as at the end of a long drive, the golf ball hangs, not
going up, not coming down, and a window opens, and there is clarity.
But it was more than that, because Thompson's image and antics will
soon fade and only his words will remain. What will the drugs mean
then? It seems to me that, starting with ''The Kentucky Derby Is
Decadent and Depraved,'' Thompson used drugs quite deliberately to
create a new kind of reportorial voice -- a voice that could be
listened to but never trusted, because the reporter was hammered and
seeing trails. By bringing narcotics into his prose, he introduced a
hallucinatory element into nonfiction writing, his own kind of magic
realism. He took the American realist tradition and ran it through a
As far as I could tell during the days I spent at the house in Woody
Creek, things didn't really get going until around 10 p.m., when the
phone started to ring and people began to show up. One night, Ralph
Steadman, who was in the country working on a project, came by with
his wife and a British writer. Steadman laid some drawings on the
counter. They showed George Bush and members of his cabinet stripped
to the core, monstrous energies pouring out of skeletal bodies.
Thompson looked at each of them and smiled. Steadman went into the
living room. A fire had been lit, but the chimney was not drawing.
When the wind shifted, the room filled with smoke, though no one
seemed to care. Thompson had some colorful wigs and everyone was
drinking and trying them on. He came in waving a scimitar, which he
told us had been given to him by a pasha. Then he waved a shotgun.
Steadman's wife said, ''No, no, I do not like this at all.''
The sheriff said: ''Don't worry. I'm the safety officer.''
At 2 a.m., a neighbor stopped by. His name was Frank. He gave Thompson
a gift and the men hugged. Thompson sat in the kitchen, polishing his
scimitar. He went at it like an obsessive and you could see his face
crazy and warped in the blade. The windows were black screens and the
world outside did not exist. ''You're not on the normal clock here,''
Steadman told me. ''Night is day. That is why Hunter calls it Owl
Near the end of his life, Hemingway wrote that the worst thing a
writer can do is read his own work to strangers. Thompson had gone
beyond that, reaching a point where he made strangers read his work,
most of it published years before, back to him. Pressing ''The Curse
of Lono'' into Frank's hands, Thompson said: ''Read it. Read it out
Frank stood up and began reading slowly, as if turning over each word.
It was the part of the book where Thompson, or one of his alter egos,
is in a bar in Hawaii raving about Samoans. At one point, Frank looked
at Thompson and said, ''What have you got against Samoans?''
Thompson grunted. ''Keep reading.''
Frank went through a few more paragraphs, looked up and said, ''Did
this really happen, or did you make it up?''
Thompson took the book from Frank and gave it to me. He said, ''Come
I did my best, but Thompson kept cursing because I was reading too
fast. ''Goddamn it! Slow down!'' I tried, but he was soon cursing
again. ''Slow down! You're reading it like a goddamn journalist. Don't
read it like it's journalism. It's not journalism. It's poetry!''
Frank took a swig of something, then said, ''I've got to leave.''
Then it was just me and Thompson. He rubbed his chin and frowned. His
face was craggy and deflated and melancholy and old. I asked him if I
could turn on my tape recorder and do an interview.
He said: ''Get me the Chartreuse. The green stuff in the bottle.''
His hands trembled. He said, ''Turn it on.''
I asked him what writers he had used as models.
Most of the writers he mentioned had bad ends: Hemingway, Fitzgerald,
He said, ''Mark Twain has always been one of my basic role models.''
I said, ''Well, I guess Mark Twain had a good end.''
He said: ''No, he was lonely and he lived too long. He was never
accepted as a writer in the New York literary circles. He was deemed a
Later he slammed his fist on the counter and said, ''Goddamn it, I am
the best writer working in America today!''
To make the point, he had me get a copy of ''Fear and Loathing in Las
Vegas'' down from the shelf. He took a swallow of Chartreuse to clear
his throat, then read his words into my tape recorder -- he read
slowly and carefully and not at all like journalism:
''There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the
Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . .
. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal
sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . .
''And that, I think, was the handle -- that sense of inevitable
victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military
sense; we didn't need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was
no point in fighting -- on our side or theirs. We had all the
momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
''So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in
Las Vegas and look west, and with the right kind of eyes, you can
almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally
broke and rolled back.''
A few hours before, as Steadman was leaving, he stood in the kitchen.
He and Thompson hugged, then regarded each other at arm's length.
''You are a good man,'' Steadman said. ''Thank you, thank you and
thank you. You've made my life, and you've made my life interesting.''
Thompson looked down and blushed. He said, ''Get the hell out of
Rich Cohen, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, is the author of
''Lake Effect'' and ''Tough Jews.''
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